Seventy percent of employers in the United States say they have experienced direct impact of prescription drug abuse in their workplaces, according to a study by the National Safety Council.

It is a difficult situation for employers. On the one hand, the vast majority of employers believe that addiction is a disease that requires professional treatment, but on the other, nearly two-thirds of employers believe that addiction is a justifiable reason for firing someone.

Few employers feel they are prepared to deal with substance abuse among employees, despite the fact that over half drug test all their workers. Over 40 percent of employers do not test for synthetic opioids even though they are commonly prescribed and are frequently “ground zero” for development of addiction. How should employers cope in America’s fight against addiction?

Problems Employers Face Due to the Opioid Epidemic

Some employment-related problems associated with substance abuse include higher absenteeism, tardiness, greater employee turnover, lost productivity, and even crime in the workplace. When an employer fires someone due to substance abuse, they must absorb the costs involved in hiring someone new to take over the position.

Simultaneously, employers must be aware of their legal position at every step. Illicit drug use is not covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act, though people who have overcome addiction are protected from discrimination. To cope, employers must be proactive and develop a systematic approach to developing substance abuse treatment policies for employees.

Zero Tolerance and Employer Legal Obligations

The many flaws in a “zero tolerance” policy toward employee drug use are becoming more apparent with each passing year. Many states, for example, have legalized recreational use of marijuana, and use of it is widespread. Many employers test for marijuana in their standard five-drug screening protocol (along with heroin, cocaine, PCP, and amphetamines). Oxycodone and other synthetic opioids will not show up on drug screens for opiates, yet synthetic opioids are among the most abused drugs, with tens of thousands of people dying from overdoses each year.

Substance abuse treatment

Not only does addiction increase employee turnover, it increases employee death rates.

Employers who want to protect their own interests must clearly define their drug-use policy concerning opioids, yet they must be careful to preserve their legal standing. Many people who are addicted to opioids obtain them legally, with a doctor’s prescription, using company-provided health insurance benefits. It presents a clear dilemma when it comes to providing healthcare benefits.

Choosing Good Health Insurance Providers

The difficulty of choosing an insurer for employer-provided health coverage is compounded by the fact that employers do not want to inadvertently give employees easy access to doctors who overprescribe opioids. Few insurance companies use written agreements with participating physicians about prescribing opioids responsibly, though some have protocols for monitoring opioid prescriptions and providing employers with statistics. An increasing number of employers are developing wellness programs for employees that are specifically designed to help employees cope with pain without becoming dependent on opioids.

Supporting Access to Substance Abuse Treatment 

Employers have little choice but to support employee access to substance abuse treatment unless they are willing to live with higher overhead in the form of coping with increased employee turnover. Employee Assistance Programs, which help identify opioid abuse and connect opioid abusers with confidential access to treatment are effective in reducing employee turnover by allowing addicted employees to receive the substance abuse treatment they need. These programs must be clearly articulated and made known to employees, and information about insurance coverage of substance abuse treatment must be clearly communicated as well.

Rarely is “dealing with” employee substance abuse as straightforward as firing people who abuse drugs, and the current opioid addiction crisis makes this clear. The statistics show just how easy it is for people to become addicted to legally prescribed painkillers, and how devastating these addictions can be. Employers cannot pretend these problems are not happening, and they need to develop clear policies on what specific steps to take when they learn of employee drug abuse.

One of those steps should be directing employees to substance abuse treatment because it works and can ensure that a company’s investment in hiring and training workers continues to pay off. If you have questions about opioid abuse or substance abuse treatment, we encourage you to contact us today!


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